Being in Good Mental Health

I’ve written in the past about my mental health. I didn’t find it easy but I did find it useful to write those things. Thinking back on those posts, and on my struggles with mental health, I recently realised that there was something important missing from the story, and that’s the happy part.

My mental health is currently really good. Not perfect, because nothing ever is, but the best it’s ever been. I’ve made big changes to my life that have made it better. I eat better. I exercise more. I’m more open in talking with people about what’s going on in my head. I use self-reflection and mindfulness and sometimes just giving myself a break. I’ve built up my social life in ways that give me the support I need. Perhaps most importantly, I have a job I enjoy and where I’m in control.

My last packet of citalopram, two years ago.

I’ve now been off the anti-depressants for two years. I haven’t seen a counsellor in nearly three years. I would go back to either of those things in a heartbeat if I thought it would be helpful, but right now, I don’t need them, and long may it continue.

Not everybody comes out the other side of depression. Not every mental health problem can be fixed and not everyone gets the support they need. But there can be happy endings. It can work out. You can make a difference to your own life.

If you think you might be struggling with depression, this article provides some symptoms to be aware of and ways of managing them. But the most important thing you can do is to seek help. Talk to a friend. Talk to a doctor. Talk to a counselor. Because life can get better, and it’s easier to achieve that with support.

Time, Money, & Stressing Out

Sometimes, being a freelancer can be stressful.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my biggest ongoing projects ended with about a week and a half’s notice. About the same time, the website that I consider my reliable backup source of income, the one I would have used to fill that gap in the short term, stopped buying articles. Suddenly, my financial position became a lot more precarious.

In theory, I’m in a good position to weather this sort of storm. I don’t have a mortgage or rent to pay. My only dependent is my cat. I banked a bunch of savings last year, partly to see me through moments like this.

And yet, when those two things hit, I felt a sharp twist of panic in my guts. My level of gainful employment was about to plummet. I needed to find more work asap.

So I started looking for that work and I quickly got an offer. The pay was half of what I normally ask, but that wrenching feeling in my guts told me I should accept it. That feeling kept insisting “You need the money!”

Then I took a step back and thought about how my job works.

As a freelancer, the way I value myself isn’t just about how much money I get. It’s about how much money I get relative to the time I put in. If I let myself take this offer, I would be undervaluing myself. I’d lose a lot of time, time I could spend looking for better paid work. It might pay off in the short term, but in the long term, I’d be undermining my own efforts.

So I took a deep breath and said no. Then I got back to bidding on projects, and soon enough, I had offers coming in from other potential clients. Clients who recognised what I was worth and who were willing to pay for that.

It’s easy to give in to stress and take the first way you find out of a situation. But sometimes it’s worth hanging on and waiting until you’ve got an option you actually want.

Back to Running LRP

Life has a habit of repeating on itself, only a little different. And so, several years since I last did it, I’ve signed up to help run a LRP (live roleplay).

This is going to be an interesting challenge for me in terms of balancing parts of my life. I’ll be writing plot for the event, which means I’ll be using similar mental muscles to the day job, but in different ways. I’ll be collaborating with other people in an act of creativity, which is great because I like people and my work can be quite isolating.

But the biggest concern is how I respond to the emotional pressure of it all. I don’t always respond well to stress (who does?) and my brain has a tendency to register what could be excitement as stress instead. This is particularly true when other people are involved or I care about the outcome, which is obviously going to happen here.

So how do I manage all that while ensuring that I do my part of the project and have fun along the way? I’ve got a few ideas:

  • Proper planning to tackle the tasks I’m responsible for.
  • Tackling them early to reduce background stress.
  • Looking at the excited and positive responses people will have to the project.
  • Stopping regularly to take deep breaths.

I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to be part of something awesome. I’m looking forward to it. And with a bit of care, I can fit this into my life without turning it into a major source of stress. But that care is going to be important.

And expect more details here as the project goes along…

Even Evil Overlords Worry About Their Cats

He’s much better now, and as helpful as ever.

When we’re writing stories, we often expect the characters’ motives and decision making to be all about the big stuff. Their doomed romance, their grand ambitions, their quest to save the world. But sometimes little things are just as important.

Take me. My cat Elmo recently had an injury. Nothing serious, but it got infected and he was grooming it too much, which stopped it healing. There wasn’t much I could do about it except take him to the vet and then feed him his medicine, but for two weeks it affected everything I did. I arranged my schedule around vet visits. I was extra cautious leaving the house so he couldn’t get out. I lost sleep because he was waking me in the night instead of going out hunting. Even when I wasn’t directly dealing with him, his health was constantly in the back of my mind, shaving away a fraction of my emotional processing power.

When you ask “why did someone act that way?”, you can always provide a big issue answer. But the reality is that there are often little things too, and they can make the difference.

Of course, writing isn’t just about presenting reality. We want our characters to mostly be concerned with the grand issues and big emotions. But it’s worth putting in those petty little factors from time to time, the things that distract us from the big cause or put a little extra strain on our brains. They can make characters more convincing and give you an excuse to vary their behaviour.

After all, even evil overlords must worry about their cats.

Creativity, Balance, and Mental Health

One of the hardest challenges for me, as a writer, is knowing when to push myself and when to stop.

It’s a depressive thing as much as a writing one. As I’ve touched on here before, I’ve been dealing with depression for several years. I’m a lot better than I was, but it’s one of those health issues that will probably never entirely go away.

Depression can be a bitch when it comes to creativity. It numbs the brain and wrecks your concentration. But one of the hardest things is knowing how to deal with it. Some days, I get sluggish, but what I need is to push on through. The satisfaction of achievement improves my mood and lifts me up. Other days, I get sluggish, and what I need is to stop. To let my brain rest and recuperate.

The problem is, those two sorts of days feel very, very similar, and it’s hard to analyse them from the inside. Doing what’s good for one can make the other worse. Trying to work out which it is is a total nightmare.

Whatever your mental health, getting the balance right is vital to creativity. Burning out can kill creativity as badly as giving up. I don’t have any easy answers, but just being aware of the problem is a good start.

Tackling Mental Health in Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones

“First, there was darkness. There were other things too: burning, and frantic motion, and people crying somewhere very far away. But the darkness came first…”

Physical darkness is one of the classic symbols in horror. It’s the place of danger where unnamed things lurk. In as far as the monsters often represent parts of our own psyches, the darkness represents the subconscious, the fearful place where malfromed thoughts and feelings lurk, waiting to spring out at us. As such, the darkness is the perfect beginning for Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones.

A Story About Mental Health

Naming the Bones is a story rooted in mental health. Londoner Alessa Spiteri, the protagonist of the story, survives a bomb attack on the tube. In the aftermath, she finds herself overwhelmed by the psychological trauma. Then she sees a monster lurking in the darkness and begins to fear that she’s losing her mind. That is until she meets someone else who’s seen what she has, someone with whom she can maybe face the monsters, both in the tunnels and in her own mind.

Mauro’s book addresses one of the most important themes in mental health – how you deal with it. The mechanisms of coping, control, and recovery that sufferers deal with.Even the name of the book points toward this. One of Alessa’s coping strategies is to calm her mind by listing the names of the bones in the human head. Her psychological

Even the name of the book points toward this. One of Alessa’s coping strategies is to calm her mind by listing the names of the bones in the human head. Her psychological defense is built around her understanding, and by extension control, of the physical defenses that protect a brain and the mind within.

Different Approaches to Mental Health

My experiences with mental health aren’t the same as Alessa’s. I’ve struggled with depression and have friends with a range of other issues, but I’ve never had contact with post-traumatic stress. Yet Alessa’s battle with it, and with the monsters that represent it, matched everything I’ve seen about approaches to mental health.

Broadly speaking, I’ve seen two approaches – coping and rebuilding. They can be used together and support each other, but they function in different ways.

Coping is about finding ways to get through the day despite what’s ailing you. In Alessa’s case, it’s about building routines, finding friends to support her, naming the bones in her head. It’s about avoiding the monsters and learning to live despite knowing that they’re out there, both in the darkness and in her mind.

Rebuilding is harder. It means facing the roots of what’s bringing you down. It’s long conversations with professionals and friends about topics that can seem unbearable. It brings long term benefits by building healthier foundations for a mind. But in the short term it can make everything harder to cope with, digging up old hurts and unrecognised difficulties, unravelling malformed coping mechanisms. It’s scary and it’s not something everyone can face.

In Alessa’s case, the trauma monsters make the process of rebuilding very real. Alessa has the chance to literally face her demons, but she has to decide whether that’s the right path for her, as well as how to deal with the darkness when she faces it. And she has to decide who she can trust, whose advice will help and whose will lead to disaster. Because facing monsters, like digging into your own emotional baggage, can be self-destructive if it goes wrong.

Hiding from the Darkness

As someone who’s spent years facing depression, I felt a lot of empathy for Alessa when she wanted to curl up and hide from the world. That created a connection that carried me into a story about how to move on from there. It was dark and intriguing and made me think about people I know and the choices we’ve made about our mental health.

Few genres can match horror for bringing the subconscious into the light. It’s good to see the genre exploring what happens when that darkness lies exposed, how we move on from there.

Stories and the Past

Elmo the kitten has a tragic and heart warming story. Mother killed by a car, siblings dead from neglect, he is the only survivor of his family. Taken in by a kindly vet who gave him to me and Laura, filling a cat-shaped void in our lives and bringing joy into our house. His story is one of the first things I tell people about Elmo when they meet him. As a story telling animal, it helps me make sense of the world, and make a connection with the person I’m talking to.

Elmo doesn’t care about any of that. He just wants to chew on my computer cable and chase slippers around the room.

The way that stories connect us with the past is complicated. The can help us come to terms with it and understand its significance – just look at this year’s Booker Prize winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, a novel exploring Jamaica’s recent history. (It’s also the first time in ages that I’ve been tempted to read the Booker winner – this looks like one hell of a book.)

But stories can also trap us in the past. Ask a psychiatrist, or anyone who’s spent time in counselling – the stories we tell about ourselves and about why things happened can become a form of conditioning, trapping us in harmful behaviour and painful emotions.

They can also trap us in relating to people in particular ways. It’s tempting for me to view Elmo the kitten as a tragic little figure who desperately needs to be sheltered and protected. But really, he’s a lively, playful ball of fur who needs to be encouraged to explore his world.

Stories are amazing. But like anything, they can do us harm when misused.

If you have any thoughts on how we connect with stories and the past, please share them in the comments. I’d be interested to hear other people’s perspectives.

Writing Through the Depression

I don’t often write about my depression. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not what people read me for. That said, discussing this illness helps to raise awareness, and so to help those struggling with depression, which includes quite a few people I care about. So today, briefly, I’m going to talk about depression and my writing.

When it strikes hard, depression gets in the way of my writing. I can’t put words on the page if just facing the keyboard makes my heart race like a steamtrain, or the thought of getting out of bed leaves me in tears. These are real things that happen to me, though fortunately less often than they used to, and just working through it is never the answer – that sets me back even more.

There’s also a difficult balancing act. It can be near impossible for me to tell the difference between anxiety that I can resolve by working through it and depressive periods where the best thing is to rest. Learning to distinguish between them is a huge part of the struggle.

But facing my depression is the whole reason I write for a living. It forced me to face the reality of what makes me happy and sad, what satisfies me or frustrates me. Doing jobs I didn’t really want to do, but had persuaded myself I could live with, was part of what made me sick. Following my dream of writing for a living has caused struggles, not least financially, but I’m a hell of a lot healthier for it.

Depression is the most wretched experience I’ve ever had, and it can hit anyone. So be kind to yourselves and focus on what really matters to you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s what we all need, depressive or not.

Dealing with depression

Today is going to be different. I’m going to talk about depression, without flippancy or silly captions. I’m going to share something I’ve only skirted around here before. It seems the most appropriate response to today’s sad news.

I was in my mid teens when I discovered Dead Poets Society. I loved that film and what it stood for, the idea that we could break the mould of expectation and live the lives we wanted. The film’s ending, which shows how social disapproval can break some people but can never break those dreams, added to the film’s power.

Over the years that followed I lost track of that message, of the value of living the life your really, truly want. That led to years wasted in dissatisfaction, followed by my own fight with depression, a fight that I still face even as I type these words. I am healthier and happier for facing that depression, for acknowledging and coming to terms with it, but it has been, and still is, a terrible journey.

That e-book I’ve been talking about for ages? The one I’ve got a cover for, remember that? The main reason it’s not out there and in the hands of readers is my struggle with depression. Because sometimes, when I get emotionally tangled, a ten minute task can feel like a labour beyond the will of Hercules.

The sad news that Dead Poets Society star Robin Williams killed himself following a battle with depression therefore feels horribly poignant. While I have never felt a suicidal impulse, I understand why someone suffering the crushing weight of depression might take that way out. It is never the right answer, but when you feel an unbearable strain just at the thought of getting out of bed in the morning, of deciding what to eat, of putting on your pants, it’s easy to see how oblivion appeals. I wish that he had found another way. I wish that more people did.

For all that our culture has spent years trying to teach us to follow our dreams, society shows us a very different model. That we should live the lives expected of us. That we should not try to live by our desires or express our despairs. It’s no wonder that depression is so prevalent, or so misunderstood.

Clinical depression is not just a bad mood. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain that can make it impossible to recover without help. It often goes undiagnosed and untreated, festering and worsening.

There is no shame in seeking help when you are feeling down, in seeking medical advice and rest when the sad feelings become too much. The part of your brain that’s telling you to be strong, to pull yourself together, to keep it all in – that’s bullshit, that’s like telling someone with a broken leg to go run a marathon. It’s keeping you from getting better, and it’s making the problem worse.

People around you will want to help. Let them.

I’m going to finish with a section taken from the NHS website on symptoms of depression. Please, have a read, and if you think there’s a chance you might be suffering from depression then go and see your doctor. If there’s someone close to you who you think might be suffering, share the list with them.

I struggle with depression still, but it has got better. It keeps getting better. There is always hope.

From the NHS symptoms of clinical depression page:

If you experience some of these symptoms for most of the day, every day for more than two weeks, you should seek help from your GP.

Psychological symptoms include:

  • continuous low mood or sadness
  • feeling hopeless and helpless
  • having low self-esteem
  • feeling tearful
  • feeling guilt-ridden
  • feeling irritable and intolerant of others
  • having no motivation or interest in things
  • finding it difficult to make decisions
  • not getting any enjoyment out of life
  • feeling anxious or worried
  • having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself

 

Physical symptoms include:

  • moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
  • constipation
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • lack of energy or lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
  • changes to your menstrual cycle
  • disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)

 

Social symptoms include:

  • not doing well at work
  • taking part in fewer social activities and avoiding contact with friends
  • neglecting your hobbies and interests
  • having difficulties in your home and family life